Cowboy Poetry

It's not the cowboys they object to, but the poetry. Poetry is never anything but a joke in American culture, especially (but not exclusively) on the right. Afterthought: One thing about poetry being despised & abject in the US -- it confers freedom.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

9 thoughts on “Cowboy Poetry”

  1. Hi Professor Duemer,

    Do you think the economic theory of crowding out holds any water with regards to funding non – profit arts organizations such as the Western Folklife Center? Perhaps those (almost exclusively) on the right don’t object to the cowboys or the poetry. Instead, maybe they object to some public arts subsidies because they drive away private donors, and that marginal cuts ($45,000/$700,000 in the case of WFC) could easily be replaced by private resources.

    1. Dustin, if the reaction to the cowboy poets were rational, considered & thoughtful, not sneering, hysterical & dismissive, I might tend to agree with you about motives. And if fact it may turn out that private funding will replace the government funding for the folklife center. The story I read suggests that the government took the crowding out phenomenon into account in funding cowboy poetry, giving more money to get the project going, then less as it became more popular and better able to support itself. There is a larger question, though, regarding what we think the proper role of government is in promotion cultural activities. Some people would say it has no role, no business promoting cultural activities; others might argue that a nation flourishes only when it supports the arts. The usual argument in recent decades has been that the arts are good for business — I’ve heard various figures, but typically a dollar invested by the government in an art museum, opera company, or literary festival, creates more than a dollar’s worth of economic activity, which in turn generates taxes, and so on. Even that model is too “liberal” for the current radical cost-cutters. (As an aside, I would point out that the recent debates all centered on programs conservatives have hated for decades, going back to the New Deal, focusing on job training, family planning, public radio, the arts, and environmental initiatives.) I guess the deeper question, for me, has to do with the extent to which we think government ought to be more than an army and a fire department. (Did you know that until the 19th century fire departments were private enterprises that you had to subscribe to?) To get back to the cowboy poets: Personally, I can’t stand cowboy poetry — what I’ve heard of it has struck me as superficial, cutesy rather than witty, falsely naive, & rhythmically flaccid; but I don’t mind a bit that some particle of a penny of my taxes went to sup[port it. That’s because I think the government has a role to play in supporting cultural activities. I don’t expect government to pay the whole cost, by the way. I make a substantial contribution to public radio every year & I support other non-profits too; but I think the government “owes” the country some support for these institutions as well. That is, I believe in shared civic responsibility. I heard a conservative congresswoman say the other day that she had voted to defund NPR because her constituents might be offended by some of the content and that, therefore, their tax dollars should not be used to support it. But carry out the logic the logic of that statement & the tax form becomes a Chinese menu: “Hmm, let’s see, I’ll have an order of the arts, but only a side of the war in Lybia. No, no Afghanistan at all, but I think I want a big helping of symphony orchestra, as long as they don’t play any of that modern atonal; crap…”

  2. Thanks for the response professor, I enjoy reading your more well thought out political commentaries. Your values and positions are drastically different than my own; however, I believe that one cannot fully develop their identity unless they spend significant time questioning their beliefs. That is why I try to read political writings not only from the infamous ‘right – wing noise machine,’ but also from blogs such as yours and left – leaning media outlets.

    My personal belief on the matter of public financing of cultural organizations is the same as the one portrayed in Andrew Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth.

  3. Dustin, Carnegie was an interesting guy. Big believer in education and libraries, but his most radical notion is that inherited wealth is a bad thing. He believed wealth corrupted those who inherited it from their parents and that parents should therefore use their wealth to endow things like libraries for the general good rather than leaving their money to their kids. I don’t think he would have wanted government getting involved, but he did believe in civic virtue and shared responsibility. The problem, now, as I see it, is that our wealthy class bears much greater resemblance to the tycoons and robber barons of the Gilded Age than to Carnegie. Which is why I’d argue for government involvement — imperfect though it is — in funding cultural institutions and activities. If the top 1% of earners behaved like Carnegie, we wouldn’t need this debate about extending the Bush tax cuts for billionaires — they would already be paying their way. Unfortunately, that is not the case. There are a few rich families — Bill Gates, Warren Buffet come to mind — who have put their large fortunes to work for the common good, but they are the exception rather than the rule. So, if you want to encourage civic virtues, what do you suggest? Personally, I think that by using tax money, we help to create a common civic life, recognizing that the citizens of a nation have an interest in sharing the responsibility for creating a lively and creative cultural life. What I see coming from the ruling class, now, though, is just the idea of enriching one’s self at the expense, not only of the arts, which are of course “dispensable,” but at the expense of our most vulnerable populations. Virtually all of the cuts being proposed to non-discretionary spending by the Republicans in the House of Representatives would disproportionately affect the poor, the elderly, the very young, and the sick. That they appear willing to take the country into bankruptcy by refusing to vote to authorize raising the debt ceiling strikes me as nothing short of nihilism.

  4. To promote more Carnegie-ism we need: a more progressive (mathematically progressive that is) income tax; the elimination of all income tax deductions except for charitable donations; and a 100% estate tax for estates over a reasonable amount (closer to $500K not $5M). The progressive income tax should further reduce the tax burden on the lower and middle classes, but not simply hammer those with incomes greater than $250K. More tax brackets should be created where income over $1M and subsequent amounts ($2.5M, $5M, $10Metc) are taxed at marginally higher rates. In regards to the estate tax…Carnegie argued that small sums could be passed from generation to generation, but anything that would produce a level of unearned wealth to the inheritor was counterproductive, and I agree with this. By implementing an exponentially progressive (again, mathematically progressive) estate tax, wealthy individuals would be required to either spend their money before they perish or give it to the government, in either case, it would benefit the lower classes. If they spend it, the economy grows which creates further economic opportunities. If they give it to the government, it allows them to lower income tax burdens further for lower classes. But, as Carnegie also said, most of the wealthy would not want to simply give their fortunes to the government to spend. They would prefer to spend it themselves, and construct something that would last forever. If they couldn’t produce a family fortune that would last forever, they would create something like Carnegie Hall, or some other non – profit organization which with a huge endowment, could positively influence people’s lives for years to come, and create a legacy for the individual. Although he tended to focus more on using these donations to construct facilities that would help those who wish to help themselves but lack the resources (free libraries), he did supported the establishment of cultural organizations which were of interest to the individual.

    In regards to what’s going on now…Did you feel so strongly about raising the debt ceiling in 2006?

  5. Dustin, if anyone on the political right were advocating what you suggest above I’d feel a lot more comfortable about the future. But I just don’t see anyone proposing those policies. The only voices for a more progressive tax code these days come from the left. None of the ten or twelve candidates the Republicans might nominate for president in 2012 would have anything to do with your proposal and most of them would call it “socialist.”

    As for 2006, the case is completely different. The world was not just emerging from an economic meltdown the likes of which we hadn’t seen since the 1930s, but even more significant is the fact that there was never really any doubt about raising the legal limit in 2006 because everyone understood the dire consequences for the world economy of the US defaulting on its debt. Look, I agree that we need to pay down the debt & I can remember when the US ran a surplus: it was at the end of the Clinton administration, after Bill Clinton had been saddled by an enormous debt run up by the previous “conservative” president Ronald Reagan. The second president Bush took that surplus and turned it into the current enormous deficit. He accomplished this by fighting two wars “off the books” and by making the tax code far less progressive than it had ever been.

    That’s why it seems to me that the radical right in Congress is not composed of serious people (which is why they have to keep insisting publicly just how “serious” they are); they are, as I suggested previously, nihilists who actually despise the idea of shared civic responsibility, which you & I agree is an important virtue despite disagreeing on the best way to promote it.

  6. I understand the case is different between now and 2006…I was just trying to prod with a favorite point from the noise machine as of late, to see your reaction. I am confident that the outcome from this debt ceiling debate will be either a balanced budget amendment, or some form of statutory limits on deficits, etc. I am interested to see today what the President has to say on the matter…I hope that he embraces the work of his deficit commission, as their approach seemed the most “fair” (and balanced).

    Do you think our disagreement over the best way to promote civic responsibility comes from a fundamental value difference of individualism vs collectivism?

  7. More on this later, but I’d hate to see a balanced budget amendment. It’s pretty clear that national governments need the flexibility to run a deficit sometimes. But I wouldn’t object to some set of laws and regulations that forced the government to put everything in the budget, including wars.

    More on values tonight. Thanks for this excellent conversation.

  8. Following up on values: I think we share a belief in the responsibility of citizenship & in the value of a lively civic sphere in American society. In order for that to happen, there has to be a fairly general belief in the value of shared support for cultural institutions. I am uncomfortable with the idea that every art museum or opera company or community theater be the project of some rich patron. That takes us bake to Renaissance Europe, which, while it certainly produced masterpieces of artistic expression, was not notable for democracy or the well-being of the working class. That’s why I think government has a role to play in funding cultural organizations & activities: it is the only institution in which we must all participate through the activities of citizenship, paying taxes & voting. In that way, we all own our cultural institutions, even those we don’t personally use. This of course need not eliminate private cultural philanthropy; indeed, the best situation would probably be a mix of funding sources that would vary from institution to institution.

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